Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why You Can't Buy Creativity

“The work had better be good, I’m paying them enough.” Over the years I’ve heard this statement – or versions of it – from many different managers charged with getting creative work out of their teams.

From a conventional management perspective, it probably sounds like common sense. But to anyone who understands the nature of creativity and what motivates creative people, it’s a recipe for disaster.Rewarding people for hard work is a great thing to do, but it’s no guarantee of loyalty – and certainly no guarantee of creativity. And using rewards as an incentive – or even a threat – has been proven not to work when it comes to complex, challenging, creative work.

There is a large body of research evidence – from the work of Harvard Business Professor Theresa Amabile and others – that relying on extrinsic motivations (a.k.a. rewards and punishments) has a negative impact on creativity. While it may seem obvious that the stick has a negative impact on creativity, it’s counterintuitive that the carrot has the same effect.

But when you’re focused on a reward, you’re not focused on the work itself. And as any creative will tell you, doing outstanding creative work – whether solving a technical problem or creating a work of art – requires 100% focus on the task in hand, to the point of obsession. You have to love what you do.

Of course companies need to pay people well. If they don’t, compensation becomes a bone of contention, and a distraction from their work. But if you really want outstanding creative performance, you need people to focus on intrinsic motivations – factors inherent in the work itself. Things like challenge, interest, learning, meaning, freedom, and creative flow. They are what really motivates creative people – and the research demonstrates a strong link between levels of intrinsic motivation and creativity.

If you really want outstanding creative performance, you need people to focus on intrinsic motivations – factors inherent in the work itself.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida discusses the results of an Information Week survey of 20,000 IT workers, who were asked “What matters most to you about your job?”. Florida points out that not only did money (an extrinsic motivation) rank only fourth, behind three different types of intrinsic motivation, but that “nine of the ten highly valued job factors are intrinsic”. And remember, it was a survey of IT workers, who might be expected to take a more hard-nosed approach to motivation than more artistic types.So the nature of creativity and the inclinations of creative workers presents a challenge, both for managers and the workers themselves.

You Can’t Buy Creativity – You Have to Inspire It

If you’re a leader or manager, how do you attract top creative talent and get the best from them?

To some extent it’s an organizational issue – allowing people to work in smaller units with greater autonomy is more conducive to creativity than in large corporate departments with centralized control.

But it’s also about the relationships between leaders and teams, and among peers – how the challenge is framed, what managers say to their teams, and how team members support, encourage, and challenge each other.

Money buys you people’s time. It should also guarantee you basic professional competence. But you don’t get outstanding creativity by simply offering more money. You get mercenaries.

If you want real creativity – the magic ingredient X that sets the product apart – you need to inspire it, by showing them what makes the work fascinating, challenging, meaningful, and fun. And you need to give them freedom to do it their way, rather than micro-managing every step.

How to Keep Your Creative Spark Alight

If you’re a creative, you probably experience a tension between following your own creative inclinations vs giving the market (your boss, clients, or customers) what it wants. Spend too much time on your own pet projects and you risk disappointing the VIPs in your working life. But if you spend too much time on well-paid work that doesn’t inspire you, your creativity will fade away.

So it’s vital to strike a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations in the work you take on. Sometimes you need to take on a less glamorous project or job to pay the bills – if so, make time for more interesting creative pursuits, in the evenings and weekends if need be. This will keep your creative spark alive and make you less resentful of the grunt work.

And challenge yourself to take a creative approach to any job you take on, no matter how unpromising the brief. It could be as mundane as packaging elastic bands, but if you keep coming up with original and valuable solutions, you’ll earn a reputation for priceless creativity.

What Motivates You and Your Team?

Think about the best piece of creative work you ever did – what motivated you to do it?

Any tips on motivating and inspiring creative employees?

More insights on: Leadership, Money, Office Dynamics

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
load comments (79)
  • Imbadandgoodatit

    You are absolutely incorrect.  Money buys creativity.  I feel 1000% more creative while working for a client that is paying well than I do working for a client who isn’t.  Also, money buys freedom which inspires creativity!

  • Jessica Cascante

    I agree!!! :) Sometimes we need that space to work… The best ideas come when you’re not focused on money! :D Thank you for all these posts, the’re really really helpful!

  • Bridget Garofalo

    “But you don’t get outstanding creativity by simply offering more money. You get mercenaries.”

    That was a great line. :D

  • James

    I’ve know creatives who have spent 3 years to do their portfolio by which time the technology (director) was outdated and they had to start again.

    I would argue we all need deadlines as they provide a framework to deliver the work. Otherwise people will dally forever (for example) over a simple project that could be done in 2/3 hours.

    I think the problem you’ve experienced is unrealistic deadlines from a client. This can only be remedied through educating the client on how long thngs take. If this doesn’t work the only other solution is firing them. Which is extreme but sometimes necessary.

  • MatthewWillox

    I hear that. Getting it done is an absolute requirement. But I’m not talking about clients.

    I’ll work as many hours as it takes to get it right, but not if I have to justify each one to a manager.

    What happens is you eventually become paralyzed against meeting the project outline and using up too many arbitrarily “quoted” hours to meet a billable percentage. It’s not clients who need education. It’s a business practice.

    It has to do with making the person with the least amount of control over the budget the most accountable to it. It doesn’t make sense.

  • martin

    I see your point but I can’t agree with you that money buys creativity. At least for me it is not the money itself that is the reason for creativity, even though it is a good spark. For me to do really good creative work I need to get enough money so that I don’t have to worry about it. Then you can completely focus on the task it self, and if you are intrigued by it creativity follows. I would say that it is not the money itself that is the reason but rather a fundamental requirement, it is the inspiration and all of these other intrinsic motivations that makes something go from good to awesome.

  • Alice Ralph

    I think money helps buy creativity to an extent… in that, as the author said, it allows the creative to focus on the work in hand rather than worrying about paying the bills and time restraints. Also quality experienced creatives (although not necessarily the BEST) will know how valuable their time is and charge accordingly.

    However I definitely agree that while big budgets might provide a good base, it does not necessarily inspire creativity. Money cannot buy that. Inspiring atmosphere, creative freedom, good working relationships, an enthusiastic team, supportive leadership, time to brainstorm and explore ideas fully… THESE are all things that kick-start creativity (and money is just a factor that can help these elements come together).

  • Nblaze4real

    If you derive joy in anything you do and be devoted to it, it will explore and take you to a greater height, you will be creative!
    Money is not creativity, it is a tool that inspire creativity.
    tanx for the post i do appreciate.

  • Joanna-Maria George

    Allowing people to express themselves in their own unique way is true creativity. We are all creation and thus all creative, however society enjoys splitting people into categories on left brainers and right brainers, forgetting that that both sides are meant to work together as one!. If people are allowed to be and work in their own style then they will produce amazing work. If that work does not fit into the companies image, then the creative person would be best moving to a place that does enjoy and respect their style. That takes courage for both parties, one to let go of the person and for the other to move away. I have seen the most mundane people create amazing creations when placed into the right context for them. 

  • Carienfranken

    make time free, to let employees make a project themselfs. Where they can express what they want to show of them selfs. (maybe you can even sell later)

  • Mark McGuinness

    “The difference is, when was the last time you asked your mechanic to
    revise the repair 4 or 5 times and expect to pay the same 4 hour labor

    I feel your pain! :-)

    There was a funny video doing the rounds a while back, where customers were walking into restaurants and saying “I want the 3-course meal with wine – but I just want to pay for the starter…”

  • Mark McGuinness

    You only discuss things you can control??

  • Mark McGuinness

    I just tried in Firefox and it’s working OK for me now. Will it work for you now? If not let me know your email address (via the contact form on my Lateral Action site) and I’ll send you a copy.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, Pink’s book is excellent, he makes a similar argument, very well.

  • Mark McGuinness

    “For me to do really good creative work I need to get enough money so
    that I don’t have to worry about it. Then you can completely focus on
    the task it self, and if you are intrigued by it creativity follows.”

    That’s the way I look at it. And yes, any professional should be able to deliver ‘good’ (competent) work, but you need the high-octane intrnisic juice for creative awesomeness. :-)

  • Mark McGuinness

    I guess it’s possible that you’re the exception to the rule. ;-)

    I can understand feeling more fired up to work for a client who pays well vs one who doesn’t. But would  you really feel 1000% more creative if someone wanted to pay you big bucks but the project wasn’t very interesting?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, money can buy time, resources and get worries of your mind – all of which can support creativity indirectly. But as you say, a good base isn’t the same as inspiration.

  • Naturally Sweet

    Someone has been reading “Drive” by Daniel Pink.  (If not, don’t read it because it sounds like you already have most of that info)

  • Hagedorn M

    What you do in your off-time has alot to do with how you work. If I can’t switch off between “mundane” jobs, I stagnate. If I can get away from the screen for a while and just look out the window and cill out the ideas have a hance to breed and take shape. Even the mundane jobs become more inspired that way.

  • Mark McGuinness

    I have read it, after I wrote my own ebook about motivation. I did find it a great read, even though I’d covered the subject from my own angle.

  • DEx

    Money/reward is part of a bigger picture than inspiration for a creative project. 

    It’s about recognition. When rewarded well, you feel good and that makes a good starting point for any creative project. Recognition removes some of the self-doubt that can be a barrier to creative thinking.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, money/rewards/recognition are definitely part of the bigger picture. They make a good starting-point and they can remove some of the barriers to creativity.

    They may be necessary but are never sufficient for creativity – for that, you need intrinsic motivation.

  • Wholesale Suppliers

    No body can buy creativity because the requirement of creativity is passion and commitment which are intangible qualities and we can not buy intangibles. The information is useful, thanks for sharing.

  • Kev

    Creativity takes time, generally you have to get your head round the problem, walk away, walk back, try something, try something else…

    If you are in a time crunch what you probably want is experience rather than creativity, i.e. people that know what they are doing and can do it again for you.

    As such spending a lot of money on “creative” people is probably wasted, just hire the smart lazy types and ask them for regular updates, you probably don’t have to pay them that much if you put your “research” facility somewhere nice – near beaches and ski resorts should work ;-)

    Note: if you hire hyperactive creative types they’ll spend their time reinventing all sorts of wheels for you. The lazier folk like to minimize everybody’s effort.

  • ChristinDawn

    so true… timesheets KILL KILL creativity for sure.

  • wildpeaks

    Creativity sparks from constraints and associating things in new ways.

    With money, you’ll have more things to associate from and will be able to afford taking time to learn about them/be aware they even exists.

    If you only have a shoestring budget, you often have to discard solutions that would be way more effective (and that could implemented sooner) because you can’t afford them.
    So you can’t buy creativity, but you’ll sure have more tools in your belt with money.

    Furthemore, you might end up having to spend too much time finding creative solutions on unimportant problems you could have easily bypassed by throwing money at them and could have focused on more critical problems instead.

    Therefore yes, you can’t buy creativity, but it sure helps.

    There was also a nice article on HBR today discussing similar points:

  • Reggie

    Great article. I can definitely relate.

  • Annyisha

    That is what is about understanding and being real. If a job that can be over and out by 2/3 hrs time frame, that should be done in that same time slot. But when the question arises about generating something, creating something new and exceptional which requires time and i think that has to be given its much required time. As time doesn’t stands still, the mind and life too doesn’t stands still. Thus the time frame is very important so as to bring in the focus to glory. which is creativity ultimately.

    Think of the painting “The Last Supper” – Leonardo Da Vinci.


    The Lining Tower of Pisa.

    Would it have been the same if done in an hours time or so.


    Constructed in 2/3 yrs. time frame.

    Good or Great or Exceptional Creativity requires time.

  • Amna Masood

    Right on spot! The same reason you cannot buy loyalty, love or passion…

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